Life in Spain: ‘When words fail us, laughter is the best medicine’

The coronavirus pandemic has seen many aspects of normal life put on hold in the rural community where Heath Savage moved to from the Sydney suburbs.

Life in Spain: 'When words fail us, laughter is the best medicine'
Sheep in a field beneath blue skies in Lugo province, Galicia. Photo: AFP

We have been living in Panton for two years. Our second anniversary was on 12th July. The party that we planned didn’t seem like such a good idea after all, during this strange period of social-distancing, which our Spanish friends must have found harder to maintain than we; since they are, by nature, warm, effusive, and hard-wired to be in your face (in the nicest possible way!) So, we are planning to host a winter-fest instead. Outdoors, around a bonfire.

The Spanish lessons which we have enjoyed every fortnight for more than a year, with our local friend, Maria, were put on hold too. She was flat-out in her role as village social worker, coordinating home care and services for many vulnerable people. This presented us with an ideal opportunity to swot up on homework, and to practise conjugating verbs together around the kitchen table, one might think; if one were a responsible adult type; which one is not.

Binge-watching “Vikings” and “Ozark” throughout lock-down took precedence over any meaningful activity, with the exception of garden landscaping, cooking and eating. I did watch some movies, and NETFLIX crime series, in Spanish, and that was helpful. Especially with the English sub-titles.

You see, I was “that girl” at school: the girl who did her homework on the bus or in the toilets before classes. The girl whose dog, apparently, subsisted on a diet of school exercise books. The girl who draped herself sullenly across her desk at the back of the class, with a transistor radio ear-piece in one ear and her finger in the other. I actually managed to convince one green, new teacher that I was deaf, for a whole week.

I’d function on cruise-control every term, then ace the exams after an all-night cram session; to the annoyance of teachers, class swots, and my conscientious brother! I achieved my Bachelor’s degree using pretty much the same technique. During my four years at university, sports, and an heroic effort to consume world-record volumes of lager were my primary pastimes.

Surprisingly, then, my Spanish has come along quite well, ‘though the words of my fourth form Head still ring in my one good ear: “ Miss Savage has immense ability, but fritters it away.” I came across this school report, from 1975, when I cleared out my mother’s home in January this year, after she passed away.

Two years into our tree-change, our daily conversations with neighbours and other villagers remain brief and stilted; limited to the weather, COVID, “malditos turistas”, and one’s health. We’ll have to wait a while, and study more rigorously, before we can pose moodily in cafes, engaged in heated intellectual discussions from opposing platforms: Cartesian Dualism versus Aristotelian Empiricism. Winner pays the bill.

Laughter, in addition to being the best medicine, is a means of opening and warming hearts, when words fail us.

Our mates in the farmacia always make time for a joke, since I went in to collect my prescription one day, wearing absolutely filthy gardening clothes and paint-spattered rubber boots, and treated them to a cat-walk mince, as I announced to a bemused customer that it was Australian Fashion Week. They also find it hilarious that we are stalked by three local dog pals wherever we go. They’ll chorus: “Ellos no son nuestros perros!” Which seems to have become our mantra.

To be the butt of such gentle jokes should be taken as a great compliment. Our Spanish teacher, who, of course, knows everyone in the village, informs us that we are indeed talked about, warmly, and with respect. Which, we have earned, apparently, by working hard to engage and fit in, despite our still infant language skills.

I reckon that is probably one of our greatest achievements in the past two years. One worth celebrating.


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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.